Puyallup Herald

Project by Bonney Lake students helps give disabled children mobility

Sidnee Petter knows how important it is for kids with disabilities to be able to move around easily, especially if they’re in a wheelchair.

The senior at Bonney Lake High School works through her church with kids who are experiencing disabilities.

“I work with a child that can only move one side — that’s the only side that works, everything else is limp,” Petter said in an interview with The Puyallup Herald on Thursday. “Seeing that kid grow, having the mobility of one side and being able to have control of that one side makes such a difference in that child’s life.”

It’s those kids Petter and her peers hope to help through a project aimed at giving mobility to patients in the Children’s Therapy Unit at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma.

The project is called a “mobility platform” and was designed by both Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) and Bonney Lake High School’s First Robotics clubs. It will teach children in non-motorized wheelchairs how to drive motorized wheelchairs. The program is designed to help children ages 2 to 18 years old and up to 300 pounds.

It works like this: kids wheel their wheelchairs on top of a platform. Then, using technology developed by the First Robotics students, children manipulate and move the platform as they choose, turning their non-motorized wheelchair into a simulated motorized one.

“We’re (working) with so many kids that have so many neuromuscular disorders that the only mobility that they have might be through their head, might be through one finger, might be through both their arms,” said Petter, president of Family, Career and Community Leaders of America at Bonney Lake High .

The platform is more versatile than other mobility methods, according to the students. Therapists don’t have to take as much time tailoring controls of motorized wheelchairs used for testing to each student.

“This would make it much easier for both the therapist and the child to be faster, more efficient,” Petter said.

Chase Arline, a senior at Bonney Lake High School and lead programmer of First Robotics, said the mobility platform would allow children to see if a motorized wheelchair is right for them before the money is spent.

“They can test this out and see how it works, because ... this allows any of them to just go up on here and test it out,” Arline said.

The students started working on the project in November after Bonney Lake teachers Tricia Littlefield, adviser of FCCLA, and Jason Vander Hoek, First Robotics adviser, worked with Mary Bridge to develop a project that could make a real difference. To prepare, students met with doctors at the Children’s Therapy Unit and researched extensively on Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations.

“They’ve been very specific about what they want in this mechanism,” Vander Hoek said about the Tacoma hospital. “They want it to only go so fast; this is the size (they) want it. It’s giving the kids a chance to work with a client.”

Arline said the platform was different than any other project he’d worked on.

“Normally, in Robotics, there’s a lot of times a right way to do things and not a right way to do things,” he said. “With this … we get to see what works and what doesn’t.”

The hardest part so far has been developing technology to allow patients with different abilities to use the chair, Arline said. For example, if a child only can move her head, the mobility platform would have to correspond to those head movements.

“They’ve already learned so much,” Littlefield said of her students. “We were trying to find something like this, and we can’t find anything that’s like it, and I think that’s why (Mary Bridge) wants it.”

Currently, the project is still in design and prototype status. The hope is to get it finished by the end of the school year. If the project is up to standard, it could be funded past its prototype.

Eric Tonsager, occupational therapist at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital, said that if the finished project is up to standard, the hospital would look into funding it for further study and implementation.

“I think it’s a great foundation project that could be a collaborative effort for years to come,” Tonsager said.